In authoritarian states, should civil society give up trying to influence those states’ policies and practices? Definitely not, but you need to do things differently, in terms of how you think, your model of change etc.
Based on recent discussions with our staff in Russia and Vietnam, here are some off-top-of-head thoughts about NGOs working in (for want of a better word) one-party systems.
1. One party states can be more open to robust evidence than multi-party ones. Disturbing, I know, but these governments often appear more interested in hard evidence than their more democratic counterparts. Petitions and emails won’t do it – you need data, though individual impact stories can work quite well too. Let’s not get too starry-eyed though, there will be areas that are off limits, and you need to know what they are.
2. Research will have more influence if it is done by an organization the government trusts – such as the parastatal Academies of Social Science in Vietnam and China and major Moscow-based universities. In any system, the messenger matters as well as the message, but these governments seem to specifically use such parastatals as channels to gather new knowledge. Such research institutions are also often hungry for connections with external agencies so you’re pushing at an open door.
3. Your political economy analysis had better be good: understanding how decisions are taken in Addis or Moscow is absolutely critical. Personalities, relationships (both personal and professional), the histories, cultures and incentive systems of different leaders or ministries. Until you have a confident grasp of these, your influencing is highly likely to go wrong (always with the risk of backlash).
4. The importance of symbolism, pride and sovereignty. Traditional NGO name-and-shame tactics are as likely to lead to a counter-productive backlash as a breakthrough. Instead, offer things that work. Find the Achilles’ heel that the government recognizes as a weak spot and focus on that. They can be surprisingly grateful for suggestions.
5. Alliances with non-state actors: in terms of citizens, most authoritarian regimes are keenly aware of issues of legitimacy, if not of direct accountability, and acts of citizenship are far from absent even when elections are either not held, or perfunctory. Building alliances with other actors (academics, churches, private sector) is just as important as in more open state systems.
6. Online campaigning and coalition work often offers more space for activism than marching on the streets. Cultivate an avatar with a particular niche, or enjoy safety in numbers working as part of a group that is harder to divide and conquer online. The use of anonymous websites, facebook groups and twitter accounts for example can be effective in creating public concern beyond the immediate community being affected. These tools can help raise awareness and motivation for people to act on the ground.
7. Persistence matters. You need a slow, steady, drip drip drip of information, invitations to roundtables, offers of secondments for mid-level officials who are the doers and internal influencers of their bosses, but not the deciders.
8. Play to your advantages – use an international front person when talking with international organisations re the policies of the state in question. Go local when dealing with ministries – you will get further if you avoid antagonising national sensitivities. Feel free to add your own thoughts